Thomas Mann opens his masterpiece Death in Venice depicting how “a great wanderlust” took control of the novel’s protagonist. There is perhaps no exact English equivalence for the German term Reiselust. It is not just a tourist’s adventurism, nor letting yourself go without a fixed destination. It is more of a spiritual state in which travel to a distant location is preceded by intense spiritual longing. There was one time in my life when such a state of mind kept telling me that I had to go somewhere far, very far. This was after the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, was fully established as a dream come true. It was somewhat terrifying for me to see in reality what I had only imagined a decade ago. I did not feel jubilant at the realisation of my dream. Rather, a vacuum surrounded my thoughts, pulling me powerfully away from all external things and events. For months together, I was a kind of an absence, a silence that was engaging with an undefined restlessness within me. In that state of mind, something in me prompted me to disappear into the Himalaya.
I do not recall exactly what led me to contact a young person from Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, whose book on Kinnauri oral literature I had included in a series I edited for the Sahitya Akademi in the 1990s. He was all but forgotten in my memory, but one day I unearthed his telephone number and called him to say that I would be reaching Kinnaur in three days. Tashi Negi was the name. And this was going to be my first visit to Kinnaur. He came all the way to Chandigarh to meet me, and with him, I headed for Kinnaur the next day.
‘A hundred horses’
From Shimla, where we stopped for the night, the journey was a day long with a long halt at Rampur on the way. It was quite an adventure as I had not seen such thin roads, winding so precariously, with the constant fear of landslides. The majesty of the cliffs and the river valley vied with one another to catch my eye. The roaring stream of the Sutlej indeed justifies its original name Shatadru, which means “a hundred horses”.
I do not recall how long I stayed at Kalpa in Kinnaur for time ceases to exist once you are in the mountains. But during that stay, Tashi Negi managed to convene a group of rather senior scholars of culture and the Himalayan languages to meet me. In the discussion with them, I spoke about my admiration and longing for all that the Himalayas eternally hold within them. The result was that we decided to set up an organisation called Himloka. Having made friends with them, I returned to Himachal Pradesh many times in the next few months, thinking of settling down in some really small snowy hamlet. During one such visit, I was introduced to the officer heading the Department of Culture and Tribal Affairs. Ashok Thakur was an immensely likeable person, sharp of intellect and soft in speech. He asked me if I would like to visit Kyelong, a long distance from Shimla. I took him up on his invitation and made it to Kyelong, way beyond Manali, quite past the Rohtang pass, and deep inside the expanse of Lahaul and Spiti district.
- After setting up the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, the author felt restless and took a trip to Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.
- His interactions with a group of senior scholars of culture and the Himalayan languages while there led to the establishment of an organisation called Himloka.
- The women of the Lahaul and Spiti district are among the best craftspeople in the country.
- Meetings the author and his wife had with the people in Kyelong led to the idea of setting up a museum showcasing their past for future generations.
- Objects and visuals were collected from all parts of the Himalayas to create the community museum. The designs were made in Baroda and the display hardware was transported to Himachal Pradesh.
- Twelve young girls of Kyelong studied museology through the National Open University and later became curators at the museum.
Lahaul and Spiti, with an area over 13,000 sq km, is one of the largest districts in India. Its population at the time was just about 24,000, with an average of three persons in 2 sq km. It was difficult for me to decide what made the deeper impression on my mind: the journey to Kyelong or the town itself. Both are difficult to describe in words. The town, if a habitat with a winter population of less than 200 and its best summer population at 1,500 can at all be called a town, is very high up in the cold desert of the Himalayan ranges. The village at the highest altitude anywhere in India is Hikkim, and it is in this district. At an altitude of 14,000 feet (4,267 m), Kyelong is just about 700 ft (213 m) short of being the highest. The cold there is freezing even in the worst of the summer months. In winter the mercury dips below −10 degrees Celsius. The traffic to Kyelong all but comes to a halt from October until the following March. There is almost no vegetation, and birds are exceptionally rare.
The district has several ancient Buddhist monasteries and nearly half a dozen lakes, apart from two splendid rivers, the Chandra and the Bhaga. Some of the monasteries have been there since the 10th century. However, what struck me most was the courage and the smiles that women in Lahaul and Spiti exude. They are among the best craftspeople in the country. They can weave almost anything, from a blanket to a basket. And, most of the time they sing in chorus and dance to their songs. The oral tradition of Lahaul and Spiti has no match in India.
Surekha, my wife, and I held a number of community meetings with the people in Kyelong. When we asked them what their aspirations were, what they lacked, and what they would like to see happen, their response was amazingly unusual. One of the women said she would like to get the time that has gone by. This led our conversation to their memories of older times, to the myths so powerfully living amidst them. That was a good take-off point for us to ask if we could conceptualise a place showing their past for future generations. They were thrilled at the suggestion.
We spent time in Kyelong, week after week, and made repeated trips, moving between Baroda and Kyelong. It was as if we were moving between a hot oven and a deep fridge chamber. It was also like moving between centuries: between a city dominated by machines and the hills inhabited by lyrical craftspeople.
In time, I managed to gather enough objects and visuals from all parts of the Himalayas to create a community museum. The designs were made in Baroda and the display hardware was transported to Himachal Pradesh. A brave and talented lady architect from Baroda offered to camp at Kyelong for several months to get the large building given to us by Ashok Thakur into shape as a museum of Himalayan cultures.
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On my suggestion, 12 young girls of Kyelong agreed to take care of the institution. The National Open University agreed to register them for a museology course. Winters and summers passed by, and a day came when the girls completed their correspondence course. It was a deeply emotional moment for Surekha and me when we handed over the keys to the Kyelong Museum to them.
The evening had become thick. The women sang emotionally saying goodbye, offered us their best meal, and we left. If you ever travel from Manali to Ladakh, stop by Kyelong, step into the museum, and look at the world through artistic, musical Kyelong eyes. The world is still serene and beautiful. We left the hills and, as the snow shone in moonlight, headed to the north-east, led by our wanderlust.
Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and chairperson, The People’s Linguistic Survey of India.